Kenya’s wildlife populations are declining markedly as livestock numbers grow

The number of camels in Kenya has risen, as have other livestock populations. Shutterstock

Over the past four decades populations of almost all the common wildlife species in Kenya have fallen to one third or less of their previous levels. Concurrently, livestock numbers, most notably sheep and goats, increased by 76.3%.

In our new study we reviewed changes in animal populations over 40 years. Our analysis is the first to consider all the available aerial survey data and the trend in numbers of each of the most common 18 wildlife species and 4 livestock species in each of Kenya’s 21 rangeland counties.

The rangelands are an area of some 512,587 km2, or 88% of the total land surface of Kenya. They cover 21 of the Kenya’s 47 counties. The rangelands are hot, arid or semi-arid and are therefore largely unsuitable for farming. But they are crucially important because they are home to over 70% of the national parks and reserves in Kenya.

All the protected game parks, reserves and sanctuaries in Kenya cover only about 8% of the country and thus support very few wildlife. The rangelands support over 70% of all land dwelling wildlife in the unprotected pastoral lands. They are also home to about a third of the Kenyan population, most of whom engage in traditional pastoralism. As a result, more than half of all the livestock in Kenya are also found here.

Key findings

We found that populations of the 18 most common wildlife species had fallen to less than one third of their previous levels throughout all the rangelands of Kenya. The number of the 18 most common wildlife species reduced from a total of 1,809,605 in 1977-1980 to 607,233 in 2011-2013.

The actual rate of decline in wildlife numbers varied among species. It was most extreme (64-88%) for wildebeest, giraffe, gerenuk, Grant’s gazelle, warthog, lesser kudu, Thomson’s gazelle, eland, oryx, topi, hartebeest, impala, Grevy’s zebra and waterbuck. The extreme rates of decline now severely threaten the survival of these species.

The declines are deeply disturbing especially given that 7 species of large mammals have been classified as critically endangered. These species include Ader’s duiker, the hirola or Hunter’s hartebeest, roan and sable antelopes. Also, by 2013, 19 species of mammals had been rated as endangered, whereas 37 species of mammals had been classified as vulnerable in Kenya.

The rates of decline for each species varied substantially between counties but virtually all counties fared very badly.

In sharp contrast to wildlife, the number of sheep and goats increased (76.3%) in the rangelands from 6,325,031 to 11,150,690 in the same period. Similarly, the number of camels increased (13.1%) from 597,052 to 675,551 animals. Donkeys also increased but only marginally (6.7%) from 116,487 to 124,274. However, cattle numbers fell (25%) from 410,198,5 to 3,068,001 in this period.
As a result of the decline in wildlife and increase in livestock numbers, the combined livestock biomass was 8 times more than that of wildlife in 2011-2013 compared to 3.5 times by 1977-1980.

We were surprised by the results because we expected the situation to be better.

Worse than thought

The average rate of wildlife loss of 68.1% also gives a false sense of comfort. It conceals some severe declines in certain counties such that, by 2016, populations of many species had been virtually wiped out.

For example, while the national rate of decline for hartebeest was 84%, hartebeest numbers had fallen by 88%-100% in six of the 11 counties in which they occur in the rangelands. Another example is the eland. These declined nationally by 78% but their numbers had plummeted by between 85% and 100% in 10 of the 15 counties they inhabit.

We expected wildlife to decline relatively less in counties with large protected areas, such as Taita Taveta 62.3% of which is protected under the Tsavo East and Tsavo West National Parks. But even in such counties wildlife losses were considerable. For example, 67% of the ostrich, 71% of hartebeest, 78% of Gerenuk, 81% of warthog and 89% of impala populations were lost in Taita Taveta County between 1977-1980 and 2011-2013.


One cause of the declines is exponential human population growth in the rangelands, as in the rest of Kenya. Data provided by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics showed that the human population in the rangelands alone increased 4.8 times from 1962 to 12.6 million people by 2009. Likewise, Kenya’s population increased five-fold from 8.1 million people in 1960 to 44.4 million people by 2013.

Our results show that wildlife numbers decline when the number of people per square kilometre exceeds about 20. More people also means more settlements, fences, roads, farms and other developments that degrade, fragment or take up wildlife habitats. More people also leads to more human-wildlife conflicts in the rangelands.

We also found climate change, linked to global warming, and manifested in rising temperatures as well as more frequent and severe droughts, to be linked to the declines.

The leading cause of the extreme wildlife losses is the failure of official policy, institutions and markets for wildlife and wildlife products in Kenya. Protected wildlife areas cover only 8% of Kenya. There are no official institutions for conserving or protecting wildlife on the rangelands and where land is privately owned by individuals or communally.

The people that do own the land have no access rights or user rights over the state-owned wildlife on their private lands. This means landowners get no compensation for supporting state wildlife nor are they compensated for damage to property caused by wildlife.

The one official institution mandated to conserve and manage wildlife in Kenya, the Kenya Wildlife Service, uses a command and control system of management which cannot work successfully on private lands. This greatly reduces the value of wildlife in the rangelands. As a result, the privately owned livestock thrive as the state owned wildlife disappear.

Some hope

Many private individuals and communities in the rangelands are creating wildlife conservancies. These promote wildlife conservation and bring tangible economic benefits to the land owners.

They now have official backing after Kenya’s Parliament passed a new wildlife conservation and management act three years ago that recognises wildlife conservancies. But much more needs to be done to create more of these conservancies. More people need to be trained on how to run them effectively, fund them so that they are managed sustainably and restore the health of the degraded wildlife and livestock rangelands.

This article is based on a study carried out by Dr. Joseph O Ogutu and Prof. Hans-Peter Piepho of the University of Hohenheim, Dr. Mohammed Y. Said and Mr. Shem Kifugo formerly at ILRI and Dr. Patrick Wargute, Mr. Gordon Ojwang and Mrs. Lucy Njino of Directorate of Resource Surveys and Remote Sensing. The study received funding from the International Livestock Research Institute, German Research Foundation and the European Union through the African Bioservices Project. The USAID funded PREPARED project also supported the study.

The Conversation

Joseph Ogutu receives funding from The German Research Foundation (DFG) and the European Commision